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Race and Racism in Europe

The French Revolution And The Nation

The ultimate lightning rod for racial hierarchies and the divining of relative worth came after 1789 and the rise of modern nationalism in Europe. After the French Revolution, many European countries became nations, defined particularly by the fact that citizenship would now be based on birth, residency within national territory, and allegiance to law or a constitution. Nationalism, in a sense, was a great equalizer, placing all those living within the national territory on an equal footing as Englishman, Frenchman, Spaniard, Italian, German, Pole, Dane, and so on. Social and economic class, it was believed, would not matter; all citizens would be equal, based on their rights as human beings. Yet, defining inclusion in the nation was also invariably a process of exclusion. Nationalists of the 1800s, even deliberately nonracist ones like Johann Gottfried von Herder, worked very hard to define not only who belonged but, by default, who did not. Behaviors, attitude, language, dress, and appearance all played roles in assessing who was of the nation and who was not. This kind of cultural nationalism, and the rise of Romanticism that sought to explore the passionate, irrational side of humanity—not just the rational side that the Enlightenment promoted—worked together to fashion the ethnic nation. A state defined by ethnicity saw itself as a spiritual entity, with citizenship tied to a soul that one was born with and to an uncontrollable, indelible personal drive to act, think, and feel in a particular way. Even more important, this belonging was natural, transmitted down through the ages, so that one was connected inimitably to one's forebears. In the mid-to late nineteenth century, the Rechtstaat (state defined by rights) transformed into the Volkstaat, more an imagined ethnic community than an actual historical or territorial entity.

One of the first and most important thinkers of the nineteenth century to elaborate this view of society was Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, who began publishing his L'essai sur l'inegalité des races humaines (Essay on the inequality of the human races) in 1853. Gobineau's history presented human development for the first time as a contest of races. His book was heavily researched in an attempt to draw together the most upto-date scholarship of the new realms of science, especially German archaeology and philology and French anthropology. He concluded that contemporary nations were the patrimony of a racial past defined by the conquest of weaker races by stronger ones. He posited three great races, the white, the black, and the yellow, that engaged in constant battle. For Gobineau, the victor and true driving force of human history was the white, or European, race. Yet, this victory came always at a price. Lesser races never disappeared. Instead, they mixed into the conquering races, leaving a weaker whole. The mixture, in fact, elevated lower races, in which he included the yellow and the black and their lingering influence among European peasantry and urban working classes, while the white race was degraded.

Gobineau's racial vision also demonstrates how dependent racial thought was on historical context. Gobineau saw racial strength in social stability, the absence of class and political conflict that dominated his era, and especially in his own national context of France. Not surprisingly, therefore, the racial future that Gobineau foresaw was quite bleak. The history of human existence was a story of racial decay: even the Aryan, the most dominant among Europe's white races, lost something by intermixing with the rest. Later European thinkers would brighten Gobineau's pessimistic vision for human history. Further intellectual and scientific development, including the rise of Darwinism, positivist science, and more extreme nationalist movements, would give rise to a more optimistic belief that this degeneration could be reversed.

The rise of Social Darwinism and European imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided the impetus for more proactive racial thought. Although Darwin's theory of evolution did not offer a racial understanding of human development, some of his interpreters immediately began explaining aspects of Gobineau's view of human history as a conflict between the races, with Darwin's notion of conflict as the undercurrent of species survival. These interpretations fueled the Social Darwinism that underscored social thought in late-nineteenth-century Europe. These thinkers explained not only differences in national strength but also the differing levels of social, economic, and political success among individuals within those nations. New positivist sciences, such as physical anthropology, psychology, and ethnology, which relied on measurement and testing rather than speculation, all injected into the idea of race a sense of heredity and transcendence. Racial sciences now supposed a biological link across generations that subsumed other forms of national identity into a physical standard that others could never adopt. Head shapes, cranial capacity, and indices of different measurements all emerged as the telltale stigmata of racial identity. This explosion of measurements allowed scientists to perceive what they thought was an expanding number of races within Europe.

Georges Vacher de Lapouge, in his study of European skulls in 1888, saw three European races and ordered their quality and value: European Man, Alpine Man, and Homo Contractus. He argued that none of these races directly correlated with a specific nation, but his descriptions of their behaviors and religious ideas were clearly meant to correspond to Germany, Southern Europe, and the population of European Jews. The naturalized German citizen Houston Stewart Chamberlain wrote in 1899 that the German race struggled to maintain its purity because of the Darwinian form of natural selection that caused Germans to feel a revulsion toward intermixing with lesser races. Overall, this putative science of race uncoupled nationalism from its liberal roots, implying that those who lived within a national community did not necessarily belong. One could act, speak, or feel German or French but never be German or French.

In a sense, the expansion of parliamentary democracies, the emancipation of minority groups like Jews, and continued social unrest in Europe all helped bring politics and race together in the form of political parties and movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These movements made race—and combating an internal enemy—a matter of public concern and state intervention. Edouard Drumont, much like Gobineau before him, saw his France as decadent because of the intermixture of external groups and the absorption of internal threats, like French Jews, through emancipation. The Dreyfus affair in France summarized this newly minted racial notion of national identity. Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army and a Jew, was convicted of treason in 1894. That Dreyfus ultimately was acquitted in 1906 did not satisfy his opponents in France who had decided that, because he was Jewish, the fact of his French nationality did not matter. As Maurice Barrès wrote during the affair, he knew Dreyfus was "capable of treason … [simply] by knowing his race" (Mosse, p. 109–110).

The racist movements and political leagues that sprouted after the Dreyfus affair took hold throughout Europe. In Austria, Georg Ritter von Schönerer saw the Slavic races from the south and east as the greatest threat to recreating not merely a great Austrian nation but a greater ethnic German Empire. Wilhelm Marr, who coined the term "anti-Semitism," wrote in 1879 that the greatest threats to the newly unified German state were the corrupt natures of internal elements, like the Jews, or intermixing with neighboring "races" such as the eastern Slavs. He, like others, ominously warned of a final racial conflict that would decide the fate of nations. Different interpretations of Darwinism, or even the denial of Darwinian evolution, did not necessarily leave nations free of racial thought. Environmental, or neo-Lamarckian (after French naturalist Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lamarck) forms of racism saw race as slightly more mutable: race was not always a matter of visible differences, but of behaviors, practices, and ideas that were acquired in one lifetime and then passed on.

In newly unified Italy, northern Italians in Lombardy saw the threat of southern peoples, the Sicilians or Neapolitans, as racially enervating. They were thought to be different because of their hot-blooded, less rational characters—elements believed to emanate from their hotter climate and their proximity to Africa. Similar ideas existed in Spain toward those from the south, in particular Andalusia. In northern Spain, notions of racial purity became important adjuncts of the Basque nationalist movement that sprang up in the late nineteenth century. The presence of foreign guest workers, or maketos, from other parts of Spain, was perceived as a threat to Basque purity. Sabino Arana, an early founder of Basque nationalism, proposed miscegenation laws in 1901 to prohibit the marriage of Basques to Spaniards.

The rise of European imperialism further coarsened racial thought. Contact with and subjugation of different peoples in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific seemed to verify both the Enlightenment notion of human development as taking place in stages, and the Social Darwinist view that national success was predicated on conflict and conquest. This inequality of development came to justify any mistreatment of non-European peoples, especially in the "scramble" for Africa that placed almost the entire continent under European dominion by 1900.

Imperialism helped solidify a view of the world as a hierarchy of races with Europeans at the zenith and all others arrayed below. One ugly symbol of this worldview was the "human zoo" that appeared throughout fin de siècle Europe in international fairs and other public spectacles. This kind of menagerie, replete with dioramic portrayals of humans living in their "typical" habitat, produced wide-eyed amazement among Europeans of the late nineteenth century and established racial hierarchy not just as an elite, scientific view of history but also as a popular one. By the 1880s and 1890s, race existed as a concrete idea recognizable to any European. Race became an essential element of national strength—and required defense and protection.

The practical application of these racial ideas followed in the early twentieth century. The racial hierarchies so easily defended in imperialist language were also easily applied to European populations as well: if Europeans so easily conquered others, what made a European so dominant? How does society perpetuate this strength? What might threaten it? The eugenic policies developed in part by Francis Galton beginning in 1883 that defended sterilization, imprisonment, and marriage proscriptions, for example, relied on a basic biologistic assumption that the social or national body could be weakened by the presence of debilitating agents. The "virus" in the eugenic model was certain kinds of people, and here race theories developed alongside other notions of difference, like class and gender, to locate the nation's racial enemies. "Degenerative" forces like the poor, alcoholics, criminals, the handicapped, and prostitutes all were viewed as suffering from an internal weakness bred through the generations from a racial atavism. Research over the last few decades has demonstrated that eugenic policies took many forms in early-twentieth-century Europe, from the pro-natalist policies of France that encouraged population growth to the sterilization policies of Germany to the marriage restrictions and immigration quotas of England. Driving all of these policies was the same basic view: in the struggle for survival, the state had to engage in proactive social "medicine" to destroy or minimize "atavistic" or degenerative agents.

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